Red Sox

Red Sox

The life of a reliever is all about routine, or so we've been told. Know your inning, know your role, get out there and do the job.

Then there's Matt Barnes.

By far the best reliever on the Red Sox, and by every metric one of the best relievers in baseball, Barnes operates in a unique space. In the old days -- say, three years ago -- someone with Barnes' stuff and pedigree would've followed a natural career progression: seventh inning, eighth inning, closer, All-Star, multimillion dollar contract.

But a game-wide reliance on late-inning relievers combined with Red Sox manager Alex Cora's aggressive targeting of matchups has made Barnes a singular weapon.

It's no accident that the team is 14-4 in his 18 appearances, which is easily the best winning percentage (.778) on the club. Name your closer, and Barnes's numbers are every bit as eye-popping, whether it's his 1.42 ERA, 16.6 strikeouts per nine innings, or 35-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The only reliever with similar numbers is San Diego's Kirby Yates, who leads baseball with 18 saves.

The fact that Barnes has only recorded three saves shows just how worthless that statistic actually is, because his value is immeasurable. If you're wondering why the Red Sox never showed any interest in re-signing closer Craig Kimbrel, Barnes is it.

Kimbrel put himself in a small box: ninth inning or later, save situation. Barnes has embraced the idea that the most important outs of a game might not technically merit an (S) in the box score.

"We saw this coming last year, the situations he pitched in," Cora said. "Obviously we had Craig, locking him in in the ninth inning. From the get-go from early (last) season whenever all those righties, the middle of the order guys, would come up in the seventh or the eighth it was Barnes and Joe (Kelly) had the lefties. He's been good. He's been good in the clubhouse with that group as far as preparation. His routine after games he learned a lot from Craig. So far, so good. He's been amazing for us."

Thirteen of Barnes' 18 appearances have come either in tied or one-run games, and he has pitched just twice with the Red Sox trailing. He has appeared four times in the seventh, seven in the eighth, and seven in the ninth.

His usage is actually straightforward, once you know the signals. When the heart of the order is due after the sixth inning of a tight game, Barnes gets the call, which makes his numbers even more impressive.

"Part of the order," Barnes said when asked what he prepares for. "I know it's going to be narrowed down to two, maybe three innings. It will be the seventh to the ninth, and more times than not, the eighth or the ninth. I just try and focus on a specific part of the lineup. I go through an entire scouting report on my own based on what I've done against them, what we've seen this year from them, and kind of go from there."

Barnes has faced 72 batters this season, and nearly 65 percent of them have come from the heart of the order. He has faced the No. 3 hitter 11 times, the cleanup man 14 times, the fifth spot 10 times, and the sixth spot 11 times. He has only drawn the No. 9 and leadoff hitters three times each.

Compare that to a closer pitching only the ninth, who could draw the 7-8-9 hitters on a nightly basis if he's lucky. Kimbrel, for example, had nearly as many plate appearances against the ninth spot (27) as the third (29) and fourth (30) last year. Out west, Yates has seen an almost perfect distribution of batters across the order, with 10 plate appearances against every spot except first (9), second (11), and third (8). Indomitable Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman has faced the No. 9 hitter more than any other.

Barnes is afforded no such luxury, and it's too bad, because the bottom four spots are a combined 1-for-26 against him. His nights instead provide a steady diet of Khris Davis, Nolan Arenado, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Abreu, and Carlos Correa, to name a few, which makes his .149 batting average against even more ludicrous.

 

"It's easy now, because I've developed a routine in how I do it, what I'm looking for, and I've accumulated a lot of ABs against a lot of these guys now, so I know what works and what doesn't work," Barnes said. "Once you get into it, it's not terrible."

That's an understatement. The Red Sox have weaponized Barnes at the back of their bullpen, and the absolute best hitters in opposing lineups are paying the price.

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